Sina Grace is the author and illustrator of the indie mini-series Books with Pictures, the neo-noir Cedric Hollows in Dial M for Magic, and the autobiographical one-shot, Self-Obsessed. Not My Bag, which recounts a story of retail hell, is his new book from Image Comics. He lives in Los Angeles, where he can be found in coffee shops working on his revenge video game-kickback, Burn the Orphanage.
A Comic by Leanna Chan
Unmasking Happiness: A Review by Shane Taylor
With simple drawings and a complex narrative Sina Grace crafts a, “haunting retail hell story,” of glamour and grandeur in his latest graphic novel, Not My Bag. Mixing elements of memoir, fiction, and visual literature Grace draws for us the flashy and cutthroat world of selling high end women’s clothing in a department store. The narrator although not explicitly stated shares a likeness of Grace – a caricature almost– is thrust into this shark tank after finding himself in immense debt from a car accident and being a starving artist, the narrator is forced to find a steady income. We quickly see that survival is not all that is at stake in this story, the narrator is deeply connected to a ghost (or a few) which complicate his existence in almost every way. While this is not a supernatural tale, these ghosts are integral to the plot – they are the ghosts of boyfriends past; ghosts perhaps that distract him from his current boyfriend and maybe also the road.
Grace explores his race, sexuality, and outfits in search of a deeper meaning. In search of a purpose. The novel’s prologue sets this up eerily as Grace depicts two versions of himself, one a naïve artist, the other a sinister retail shark. The first sentence reads, “What are we afraid of?” while the two Graces stare each other down, set against black surroundings. “I am afraid of myself,” he admits.
Grace navigates his existential fears through his simple, almost sketch-like panels that often break out of their own borders. He uses a sporadic style of storytelling that when paired with his free form panels give us a feeling that this plot could be going anywhere. And it does. Many pages even hold a faint memory of a “create-your-own-adventure” novel. Grace lays out panels with multiple arrows giving us options on where to read next and how to progress his narrative, or even let it double back on itself. It is refreshing as a reader to be given that freedom and also helps to show the complexity of Grace’s story which is so much more than just a, “haunting retail hell story.” When I first picked up Not My Bag I just thought, “Exactly,” and dismissed it because it seemed to be a simple chronicle of working retail, but was I ever wrong.
Grace’s story is one of self realization, self affirmation, and humiliation. Retail hell is his vehicle to deliver it. He had me gripped in the first pages with the surreal dialogue between his two selves and kept me with him as he battled his ghosts and his coworkers. As an aspiring writer I wondered if this is a story about me. Will I find myself in a job I don’t truly care about just to pay off my debt (from school instead of car insurance)? Will I, “become the person I hate most, all for the notion of a promotion?” Reading Not My Bag brought to light some ghosts of my own sequestered deep within my closet behind all the thrift store jackets. And I realized that Sina is not really afraid of himself.
Weaving together the sometimes scattered anecdotes and monologues is a constant consciousness of appearance and artifice. Grace in every section struggles with how he outwardly expresses himself – to find a balance between what society wants to see and what he wants to be. Although his connection to clothing is obvious, the course of his struggles flows much further into metaphor, signifying faithfulness to a dream. Grace must wear a traditional suit to work instead of his artistic creations; he must work retail to create art. He takes shelter from the masks in his favorite designer’s, Alexander McQueen’s, boutique, in a ridiculous coat that reminds him that clothing is not just a commodified good, but can also be beautiful and can be art. That coat saves him from his fear – the fear of losing his identity to a socially-conformed-retail-shark version of himself. This is what I fear too. Of losing my art, my writing, to the necessity of having a steady paycheck or job security. Sina Grace’s artfully crafted narrative reminded me to maintain ownership of myself. And like Grace’s narrator takes comfort and finds strength in an Alexander McQueen coat, I derive comfort and strength in an Oscar Wilde quote: “The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”
Being a creative writing student can sometimes be hard. I am asked to study the classics and write analyses of them, read peer work and write comments, read contemporary fiction and write endless drafts of my own – sometimes it can burn me out. Reading becomes a chore. Writing becomes an assessment. It all becomes necessary steps to receive a degree. What is that worth if I neglect my art to get it?
Not My Bag unmasks the trivialness of arbitrary labels – of promotions or job titles. Grace shows his readers – showed me – that happiness is found in the pride of what lies beneath the mask.